Amazon’s decision to move its entertainment division to Culver Studios — where “Gone with the Wind” was filmed — demonstrates the degree to which the tech giants have woven themselves into the fabric of Hollywood.
CULVER CITY, Calif. — It was as if they were stepping into 1940, the heart of Hollywood’s golden age.
The stucco bungalow where Orson Welles puffed on his pipe between “Citizen Kane” scenes shimmered in the sun. White roses bloomed along a path leading to the cottage where Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh changed into their “Gone With the Wind” costumes. You half expected Cecil B. DeMille to come bounding out of the nearby studio administration building, a mansion modeled after Mount Vernon, to bawl out an underling.
Yet a gathering here last week was not about Hollywood’s past as much as its future. The official purpose was to commemorate the $12 million restoration of four studio buildings. But the visitors may as well have come to cut the ribbon on a new era in the entertainment industry — one marked by the ascent of streaming giants like Amazon Studios, the compound’s new tenant.
“This historic place has become newly relevant,” a beaming Jeffrey Cooper, Culver City’s mayor, told the crowd as Jennifer Salke, the Amazon Studios chief, sliced a green-and-white sash with gargantuan scissors.
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“So exciting!” Salke said, shaking Cooper’s hand. Two of her Amazon Studios lieutenants, Albert Cheng and Jason Ropell, clapped nearby. (Salke has been the head of Amazon Studios since February, replacing former chief Roy Price, who resigned due to allegations of sexual misconduct made by a producer.)
Amazon is only renting Culver Studios, as the 14-acre lot is called. Hackman Capital Partners, a real-estate investment company, has owned the rectangular property since 2014 and lured Amazon with a plan to spend $600 million on seven new studio buildings and other upgrades by 2021.
But Amazon’s decision to move its entertainment division to the compound under a 15-year lease — the company had been using nondescript offices in Santa Monica — demonstrates the degree to which the tech giants have woven themselves into the fabric of Hollywood. You can no longer separate one from the other.
“This is mixing old media and new media in a completely harmonious way,” Michael Hackman, chief executive of Hackman Capital Partners, said by phone Wednesday.
The majestic administration building, for instance, looks much as it did in the 1930s and ’40s, when DeMille and David O. Selznick, who produced “Gone With the Wind,” had their offices inside. Only now, the movies in the framed posters hanging inside “the mansion,” as the building is known in film circles, are owned by Amazon, including “Manchester by the Sea,” “The Handmaiden” and “The Big Sick.”
“I like the sense of history because it holds us to a standard,” Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s founder and chief executive, said when a reporter asked him about the Culver Studios move at an Oscar-season cocktail party.
Culver Studios may have a grand past — “Raging Bull” and “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” were made here, along with the pilot for the original “Star Trek” television series — but the complex also epitomizes the troubles the movie business has encountered over the decades.
As a string of owners struggled to adapt to changing audience tastes, new technology and rising costs, vast sections of the campus were sold. (Condominiums now occupy part of the area where Selznick ignited monumental outdoor sets to simulate the burning of Atlanta.) As waves of consolidation buffeted the movie business and fewer films were made, idling some of Culver Studios’ stages, the facility turned to television production to pay its bills, much like Hollywood as a whole.
By 2004, when a struggling Sony sold the property, years of underinvestment had taken a toll. The old star bungalows were in poor repair. Soundstages were outdated. The mansion smelled like Grandma’s house. “It needed a lot of work, to say the least,” Hackman said. (Contrary to popular belief, the mansion was not Tara in “Gone With the Wind.”)
Amazon, which has roughly 700 entertainment employees, began moving staff here late last year. More will follow as buildings are completed.
“It’s about recognizing the traditions and legacy of Hollywood, while also recognizing that we have the ability to reshape it,” Cheng, chief operating officer of Amazon Studios, said of the decision to make Culver Studios the unit’s headquarters.
Last month, Amazon said it would also lease a four-story building that is going up across the street, giving its Hollywood division a total of 355,000 square feet of office space in Culver City. (Apple recently leased a building three blocks away for its own original content group.)
Amazon is expected to spend $5 billion on movies and television programming this year, according to JPMorgan analyst Doug Anmuth. Its 44 original series include “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” and “The Man in the High Castle.”
Amazon has at least 10 movies in various stages of production, including “Life Itself,” a highly anticipated romance set for release on Sept. 21.